Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Fitting Farewell

Pia Sundhage's final match as the U.S. Women's soccer coach had all the right elements to encapsulate her nearly five years in charge. An early deficit, some dodgy defending, lots of goals, and in the end, a victory as the Americans beat Australia 6-2.

It's easy to forget that when Sundhage took over the team it was in complete disarray. The women had finished third in the World Cup in 2007, a result with which most countries (Canada comes to mind) would be ecstatic, but which was disappointing for the Americans in part because it constituted the second straight World Cup that they had failed to win, but mostly because of the way it had happened.

Then-coach Greg Ryan benched keeper Hope Solo in favor of long-time starter Brianna Scurry for the semi-final match against Brazil, which the U.S. promptly and embarrassingly lost 4-0. After the game, Solo publicly blasted Ryan for the decision (where have we heard that since?), splitting the team into two camps.

Alex Morgan, one of the fast, skilled young players
that Sundhage included in the U.S. Women's National team.

While the team regrouped to defeat Norway in the consolation game, the damage had been done. Ryan was dismissed and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati eventually named Sundhage, the first non-American to hold the job, in his place.

Nine months later, the U.S. Women won the Gold Medal at the Beijing Olympics. Sundhage found a winning formula, based primarily on Abby Wambach and Solo, and stuck with it.

While the play wasn't always pretty, and there were some rough stretches (particularly during World Cup qualifying, when the U.S. lost to Mexico and had to defeat Italy in home-and-home matches to squeak into the Finals) the team began to play exciting, attractive soccer. Sure, there were more bumps along the way - especially the World Cup Final against Japan when the Americans twice surrendered leads and their slow defenders (yes, Hope, slow defenders) were exposed.

But two matches in particular, the World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil in 2011 and the Olympic semifinal against Canada this summer, were two of the most compelling soccer matches, men's or women's, I've ever watched. And Sundhage should also be credited for bringing youth into the team, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux being the best examples of quality players who blossomed under Sundhage's leadership.

Perhaps most importantly, Sundhage clearly enjoys coaching and imparts that joy to her players. Undoubtedly she worked them hard. But she has a whimsical side that occasionally causes her to dance or break into song.

Whoever replaces Sundhage will have big shoes to fill, and will inherit a team with high expectations for the next World Cup, to be held in Canada in 2015. He or she may well bring the Cup back across the border. But I doubt that whoever it is will do so with as much panache as Sundhage brought to our team.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Best Team Doesn't Always Win

Watching the United States' men's national team hit a cross bar and two posts during the first half of its match against Jamaica, I started to hear a voice.  My own, to be precise.

"Maybe this is going to be one of 'those games'," the voice said.

I can't remember if I've written this before, but I've said it many times, and believe it's true: soccer is the one sport among all in which a clearly dominant team can play well and still lose, or at least not win.

Maybe it's the size of the playing field, or the number of players, that allows a true underdog, in ability and physical skill, to have "a shot" more than other sport. I tend to think it's because of the nature of the game and its running clock. 

In basketball, a vastly outgunned team used to be able to stall the game and at least stay close, if not have the opportunity to pull a huge upset. With the advent of shot clocks at the college and pro levels,  that ability no longer exists. Given the relative lack of merit in watching a 12-10 basketball game, not many would argue with the rule, although it does limit an underdog's ability to slow the game.

In American football, the constant stoppage of play means that a certain number of plays, and therefore scoring opportunities, are guaranteed. 

This isn't to say that "upsets" don't happen in basketball or football. They clearly do, and the disinterested observer almost always roots for them.

But I'm not talking about upsets here. What can happen only in soccer, I believe, on more than a very rare occasion, is when one team is clearly outplayed on the field during a contest, and still wins, or at least doesn't lose. That is one of the reasons that I believe that soccer is the most compelling of all sports.

In my time as a coach, I was on both ends of results in which the obviously better team did not win. I can still remember my son's travel team dominating a match in the West Virginia Open Cup, only to lose on a fluke goal that bounced over our keeper's head. But I can also remember several victories in which we were outmanned and outplayed, but found a way to win.

Our high school team lost at least two games in my tenure as assistant and head coach in which we dominated possession, but couldn't push that ball across the line or under the bar. The worst was in sectional play, against our biggest rival, in which we controlled the game, lost our best midfielder, kept fighting, endured a lightning delay, and lost because the other team converted its only real chance to score (at least, that's the way I remember it).

But I also remember the Regional Final in 2009, when we outplayed our AA-A rival, but headed into overtime, then the second overtime, then the third, then the fourth, tied at 0-0. And I can remember, as clear as if it happened last night, our graceful forward scoring in the last minute of the fourth sudden death overtime to send us all into a frenzy.

It's that build-up, that anticipation, that frustration, that makes soccer great.

And the U.S.? It scored in the 55th minute on a free kick and made its path to the final round of World Cup qualifying much safer. And those crossbars and posts and great saves by the keeper made it all the sweeter.

The U.S. celebrates Herculez Gomez's goal against Jamaica.

Sometimes, the best team does win.

But that voice in my head didn't stop whispering until the final whistle blew.